SPOILERS for Doctor Who season 8 episode 9 “Flatline”
With the Doctor trapped in the TARDIS due to something weird happening in Bristol, he hands over his psychic paper and sonic screwdriver to Clara and thrusts her into the role of Doctor in his stead.
My sister and I have a game called “Other Detectives in Hound of the Baskervilles” in which we imagine how the iconic adventure of Sherlock Holmes would look if, instead of Holmes, we put in someone else: how would Agatha Christie’s icons of Poirot or Miss Marple handle it? What about Inspector Barnaby of Midsomer? Inspector Morse? And so on.
With Flatline’s plot we’re given a new opportunity for a similar game. “Other Companions As The Doctor”. Clara certainly did well in the role, but this game comes out of the obvious example of Sarah Jane Smith as a much better Doctor, as shown by The Sarah Jane Adventures. Sarah Jane in Flatline would have been much stronger as an authority figure to counter the overseer’s attitude towards the youths on community service and probably not have relied on the psychic paper at all, but just used front to proclaim herself to be authorising the preservation of the mural. She also, regardless of whether it’s the younger Sarah who travelled with the 3rd and 4th Doctors, or the older Sarah who met the 10th, and investigated on her own, would have understood more readily than Clara the burden and challenges of being The Doctor. The lesson at the end would be redundant.
My other favourite companion is Ace. Where Sarah Jane (and Clara) claim authority and interact with the authorities as equals, Ace is the sort of teenager who would be on community service herself (she has a criminal record for arson, don’t forget!) Her approach to the situation is likely to be different. She’s likely to appeal directly to the other teenagers, rather than address the authority figures. As strong as she is in some stories, when faced with being the Doctor I think she struggles. The ending lesson in Ace’s Flatline is, perhaps, one for the Doctor: a reflection of how hard what he does really is.
Another teenager companion who springs to mind is Adric. If we’re allowed to have the full crew of Adric, Tegan and Nyssa then Flatline becomes a more intriguing story, with various combinations possible. My favourite would probably be to have Tegan trapped with the Doctor, while Nyssa and Adric deal with filling the Doctor’s role in the outside. This provides the combination of Adric’s superpower (mathematical ability) with Nyssa’s authority, to get things moving. Adric probably realises the nature of the threat more quickly because a few 5th Doctor storylines tende dto have these kinds of concepts, and the idea of 2-dimensional creatures would suggest itself naturally to his mathematical mind, I suspect. Nyssa provides the adult gravitas to motivate people as necessary.
In 5th Doctor storylines there are a few episodes where the companions have to take the lead: Castrovalva has a largely incapacitated Doctor early on, leaving Tegan and Nyssa to solve the challenges by themselves, for instance. A version of Flatline with Peter Davison’s Doctor and the rest of the crew could be an excellent story.
Adric on his own, as the premise of the game implies, still solves the puzzle more quickly but lacks the authority with either adults or peers to address the issue: the horror of the death in the tunnel is all that gets his warnings heeded. When the overseer challenges his authority in the warehouse, he probably lacks the aplomb of Clara. He’s bright enough to keep up with her performance, but he makes it look a lot harder.
The lesson relates to the complaint at the start of Earthshock, where he is unhappy at being sidelined by the others. After being thrust into centre stage to “be” the Doctor, the lesson is that being important is often a lot harder than it’s worth. Equally, though, he discovers that he can rise to the challenge. It could be a major “rite of passage” or “growing up” episode for him.
Rose Tyler is also likely to be more on a level with the teenagers than the authorities. She’s likely to pull off the MI5 impersonation better than Ace or Adric through sheer front. She’s more of an action companion, so relies on the Doctor to give her the answer to the disappearances. In many ways, I feel she is the one who would handle it similarly to Clara at each point, but with a much more open attitude and probably deeper faith in the Doctor’s advice and plans.
Her ending depends on which Doctor she’s with. If it’s 9th Doctor (Ecclestone) or 12th (Capaldi) I think it’s a similar version to Clara’s, but she handles it differently and it probably feels harsher because she’s a more open and trusting companion, in general. If it’s 10th (Tennant), it’s probably a more mutually supportive exchange: “You did well, I’m proud of you”, “But how do you do it, so often?” “I have people like you.”
Of the other New Era Who companions, the one I would most like to see thrown into the role of Doctor would be Rory. In Flatline, I find it hard to see how he would be the one heading out into Bristol to investigate rather than Amy. The best storyline would have Amy trapped with the Doctor, giving Rory a much stronger motivation to solving the shrinking TARDIS aspect. But I can’t see how to set it up that way. But, Rory in the TARDIS and Amy as the Doctor, that feels like the same episode but with more angst.
Martha Jones I think would be impressive as the Doctor. In Human Nature/Family of Blood she’s already had to cope with a Doctor who wasn’t the Doctor, and to some extent take on his role in the story. In Flatline, being a medical Doctor, she recognises the nervous system layout immediately. Maybe the Doctor figures out the significance of that, but she’s more involved in solving the puzzle. With the authority of her professional status, she probably manages the people better.
As noted, Martha had to face Doctor-like challenges during her season. In context with this, her lesson is likely to be more of a mutual recognition of the harshness of being the Doctor. “Is it always like this?” she asks. The Doctor nods sadly.
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The conclusion I draw is that most or all of the Doctor’s companions could have been the Doctor in Clara’s place. As the 11th Doctor explains in Amy’s Choice, he’s very careful about who he chooses to travel with him. Some might struggle more than others but all could find a way (that is, the scriptwriter could make it work in a way consistent with the character) to cope with the challenges.
The lessons they learn from it, or bring back for the Doctor, would be different. The ways that they manage would also be different.
I would love to hear what ideas others have about how different companions would cope with being thrust into the role of the Doctor, either in general or in the specific storyline of Flatline. Make suggestions in comments!